Thousands of music lovers, ship lovers and plane lovers, undeterred by a horrific shooting that targeted a country music concert five days earlier in Las Vegas, descended Friday on San Francisco for a pair of free weekend spectacles that never fail to stir the faithful.
Fleet Week plied the blue waters of San Francisco Bay and the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass music festival convened on the green meadows of Golden Gate Park, events that will dominate the city through Sunday.
Police and organizers promised a strong and visible security presence, seeking to reassure those joining the crowds. But while many people said they appreciated the response, they were determined not to let fear deter them from gathering together and getting on with the business of boats and bluegrass.
“We can’t be afraid,” said Crystal Mitchell, 40, of Milpitas, who went to Marina Green, a prime viewing spot for Fleet Week awash with tents, food booths, sailors and sailors’ families. “I don’t live in fear. If we lived in fear, we would never go anyplace.”
In Golden Gate Park, fans turned out for dozens of guitar-and-banjo-plunking bands that will play on seven stages. Along the northern waterfront, they showed up to see a small armada of majestic gray Navy vessels and a small squadron of stunt pilots and parachutists followed by the head-spinning Blue Angels precision flight team.
Early birds like Mitchell flocked to each site to stake out good spots to lay down their blankets for the noisy stuff to follow.
“My son is active in the military, and when I heard about Fleet Week I just wanted to come,” she said. “People have a misunderstanding of everything going on, that we as a people don’t respect our troops.”
Nancy Charnoski, 65, of Campbell, who was wearing a U.S. flag shirt, peered at the ships through binoculars. She said she has been coming to Fleet Week for 20 years because “it’s a tradition.”
Susan Barbeau, 65, a visitor from Ontario, Canada, said it was her first Fleet Week and that the parade of ships is “pretty neat.”
On the great swath of Golden Gate Park lawn renamed Hellman Hollow in honor of the late festival founder, investment banker and banjo plunker Warren Hellman, fans took their positions on the turf for a chance to hear such legends as Laurie Lewis, Billy Bragg and T Bone Burnett. The music wafting from the loudspeakers joined the aromas wafting from the food tents.
“Ladies and gentleman, we want to welcome you to Hardly Strictly No. 17,” an announcer said from the stage. “We hope to continue our tradition of a safe and peaceful event. Look out for each other. But you don’t have to be told that.”
The crowd of music lovers nodded. The specter of Las Vegas seemed a world away. The crowd lazed under the hot autumn sun and the eucalyptus trees, listening to the clamor of banjos. There were no bag checks or metal scanners.
“If someone wants to do something, they’ll find a way one way or another,” said Drew Smith, 58, of Sarasota, Fla., who was swathed in sunscreen. “There’s only so much you can do. You just have to have faith.”
Nearby, Sandy Lowery of Boulder, Colo., sat on a blanket with her husband, Norm.
“It’s my husband’s birthday week, and we wanted to see Laurie Lewis,” Lowery said. “The Vegas shooting was tragic. But I feel safe here. It was such a random thing.”
People of all ages, from infants to the elderly, clustered around the stage. James Mendenhall, 6, said he plays the piano and wants to hear Sam Chase.
“I think it’s going to be good,” James said. “I like music.”
“And you don’t have to wear earplugs,” his nanny, Ziva Hadar, 35, said.
Meanwhile, along the waterfront, the gray ships paraded and the air show planes buzzed. Navy Special Operator Brendon Peterson jumped out of an airplane at 4,500 feet, opened his parachute and fluttered to earth displaying a U.S. flag and trailing red smoke from a canister while the crowd cheered.
“A lot of work goes into this,” Peterson said after touching down on Marina Green. “It took about 300 jumps to get it right.”
Vangie Ibarra, 50, of San Francisco said it’s hard not to think about Las Vegas.
“I thought about it,” she said. “You keep your fingers crossed.”
Fleet Week continues with its noon to 4 p.m. air show Saturday and Sunday. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass continues, too, with such musicians as John Prine, Randy Newman, Natalie Cressman and Emmylou Harris trying their best to cope with the screeching of six Blue Angel jet planes, which can be louder than a banjo.
Hardly Strictly regular and Rooster Stage curator Conor Oberst helped close out Friday night with a cover of “Walls (Circus)” by Tom Petty, who died this week. Oberst said he was happy to play his sunset performance for the crowd after a week that felt like such a “brokenhearted time for music,” between the death of Petty and the mass shooting in Las Vegas. “Just being out here with you guys has renewed my faith. As human beings, as homo sapiens, I think we need these kinds of things, these gatherings, where we can hear music and sort of be nourished in our souls. … This is some of the best stuff in life.”
Fans of both the music and military festivities said it was clear the smart thing to do was come to each by public transit because finding a parking spot near either site was tougher than performing a loop-the-loop in a F/A-18 jet or a solo of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on the five-string.
Chronicle Arts Content Editor Mariecar Mendoza contributed
to this report.
Jenna Lyons, Lizzie Johnson and Steve Rubenstein are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @JennaJourno, @LizzieJohnsonnn, @SteveRubeSF
Look! Up in the sky!
What: Fleet Week Air Show
When: Saturday and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m., weather permitting.
Who: Exhibitions by stunt pilots, parachutists and precision fliers including the Canadian Snowbirds and the Patriots Jet Team, followed at 3 p.m. by the Navy’s six Blue Angels jets.
Where: The best viewing is along the northern San Francisco waterfront, although the Blue Angels can be seen from many vantage points.
How much: Free.
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass